A woman becomes a mother only after a child is born to her. The mother thereafter, throughout life takes pride in every achievement of the child, big or small. Her children always remain special to her. A flying instructor is almost same to a mother, in this aspect. A pilot in the Air Force becomes an instructor when he has his pupils. A true blue instructor will always take pride in every achievement of his pupils. When the fraternity talks good about his pupils the instructor’s heart swells with pride and he makes it a point to tell the world, “He was my student.”
This bond is even stronger in case of pupils of basic stage. These cadets who join the Air Force Academy have no clue about flying, however they have only one dream they all want to become pilots.
The flying instructor is their coach, trainer, mentor, instructor. In fact at that stage, he is everything. Even for the instructor, these pupils are everything. Basic stage is the stage when the cadets learn basics of flying. The pupils learn to fly the aircraft solo, and when the pupil goes solo, the instructor is as excited as the pupil because both of them are working towards fulfilling the dream of wearing those wings. The journey is challenging, difficult, and at times frustrating. The instructor and pupil share a special bond because each of them is totally transparent in front of the other. The instructor can see the pupil’s tension, vulnerability and confidence going up and down as the stage progresses. The pupil can also see the mood swings, and other idiosyncrasies of the instructor, just that the pupil does not mention.
VikasUpadhay was my pupil from June to December 2002 in Air Force Academy. Before the pupils were to join AFA, the Flight Commander used to allot pupils to each instructor. I was sitting with the Flight Commander, A.K.Verma and I just happened to take the name list of all pupils allotted to our squadron. Each of us were to be allotted three pupils. I told A.K.Verma that I wanted to fly with Arpit Kala and Pritam Santra. The reason was that I found these surnames to be different and interesting amongst the list. A.K.Verma, being the noble soul that he is, agreed to my unique reasoning. He thereafter told me to take on Vikas Upadhay as my third pupil. This time his logic was, you must also have a guy with a usual north Indian surname!
Upi (nick name for Upadhay) was a quiet, sincere and hardworking cadet. He wasn’t the hottest guy when it came to flying skills but his attitude towards everything was just out of the world. He was bit low on confidence and struggled to cope up in the initial days. He was extremely upset when he failed his first solo check and insisted that I fly him his extension. The rules did not permit that and hence he flew two sorties with some other instructor. Upi was visibly disturbed in those two days.
After the only hitch in his basic stage, he got more and more comfortable with the machine. In the first few days I was myself, an instructor full of energy, most of the times shouting in the cockpit, pushing him to perform better and better. As he failed in his solo check sortie and got a warning, I realised he needed to be treated differently. He was an emotional young boy who took most of the things too seriously. As it is, he was not very high on confidence and I realised my pushing to perform was becoming counterproductive.
I adapted a different strategy for Upi and started separate debrief sessions for him. Kala, Santra and Upi used to come for debrief together and after I was through with Kala and Santra, Upi used to sit alone for his debrief. He required to be encouraged and was sensitive to being given feedback in front of co-pupils.
Flying training takes toll on pupils and some of them start to nurture some idiosyncrasies themselves. The weather, aircraft, sector and many other variables are constantly affecting your performance. One tends to unnecessarily get superstitious. Some wear same overall for first sortie and solo check. Some try to manage same aircraft. As I got to spend time with Upi, I realised that below the transparent map case, he was carrying an inland letter.
Whatever phase of training, I always saw that he carried it tucked nicely under the map for no one else to see. Half way through the stage, I casually enquired in passing, about the letter.Upi mentioned, it was from his family. We never discussed anything further than that. As the time for passing out came closer, I insisted that Upi join helicopters. I knew he needed multi-crew environment. I also knew that with his remarkable attitude, he would soon be the workhorse in helicopters.
He wanted to join fighters and in his polite way tried to reason out with me. Once I spent few hours explaining him the issue at hand, he took the decision in his stride. I think he had immense faith in me and trusted me completely. We said good bye and good luck to each other in Dec 2002 and thereafter I was generally aware of his progress in professional and personal life.
Many years later in a station in north, I was Flight Commander of a unit and Upi was the work horse of another unit. My assessment of Upi’s professional acumen and other environmental factors was bang on. He was a young Squadron Leader, work horse of the unit, having the best attitude in the unit. He was always there for his juniors, taking up their problems as his own. He was also a force multiplier for his Flight Commander and Commanding Officer. Every time anyone would talk good about Upi, I would barge in the conversation and claim him to be my basic stage pupil.
On the personal front, he was a married man with a daughter. His wife, Tejaswini, was a lady officer in technical branch and was Senior Technical Officer in my unit. Both of them were doing great professionally as well as a family. Even in that tenure, Upi displayed greatest of respect for me. I knew he had matured into a fine professional having his professional opinions on most matters. Whenever we discussed some of the professional matters, Upi used to be cautious of what he was saying. I don’t think it was due to under-confidence, it was because that is what Upi was. Gentle and respectful. I left the station and thereafter was always proud to hear of his professional progress.
Today (06 Oct ‘17) I came to know that there was a helicopter crash near Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. The Helicopter was on a routine air maintenance sortie near the Indo –China border and it crashed fatally injuring all 6 occupants. Every time I hear of an Air Force aeroplane/Helicopter crash, my heart skips a beat. I know it is someone from my fraternity who has laid down his life while serving the motherland. News of this crash made me more nervous and my heart skipped several beats instead of one. As I am forced to digest the news that Wing Commander Vikas Upadhay was the captain of this helicopter, I am reminded of every moment that I spent with the great guy. I can see every debrief in front of my eyes, I see his attitude full of helpfulness, commitment and concern for the unit. I am reminded of telling his Flight Commander,“I am envious of you, because you got a gem with you in your unit.” I see Upi’s face quiet and composed.
I know he is already in heaven and to the guys out there I just want to say, “A great soldier joins you today. His attitude will spread joy and happiness. A new workhorse has arrived.”
Good bye and good luck Upi; you will remain a special pupil, always.